Richard North, 25/10/2020  

If Twitter is any guide (which it undoubtedly isn't), I must be the only person on this planet who doesn't have a view on the US presidential election. As a rule, I tend only to comment on things I know about, and I do not know enough about US politics to be able to offer an informed view. Thus, I feel, silence is my best policy.

Needless to say, there is an interface between US and UK politics but commentary then runs the gauntlet of conjecture on both sides of the Atlantic – guesses compounded by guesses.

Into this difficult territory, however, the stalwart figure of Ivan Rogers dares to tread, via the Observer.

He is telling us of a view prevailing amongst senior figures in European governments that prime minister Johnson is waiting for the result of the presidential election before finally deciding whether to risk plunging the UK into a no-deal Brexit.

This is certainly an interesting, if alarming perspective, as it suggests two things of Johnson. Firstly, despite seeking "independence" from the EU, he seems willing to allow events in the US to determine UK policy. Secondly, he is acting as if US and EU policies are "either or" options, rather than interdependent.

The outcome, according to Rogers, is a belief that Johnson will think "history was going his way" and opt for no deal if his friend and Brexit supporter Donald Trump prevails over the Democratic challenger, Joe Biden. On the other hand, he may conclude that a no-deal scenario is just "too risky" if Biden is heading for the White House. In that event, he will live with some highly suboptimal (for Johnson) skinny free-trade agreement with the EU.

With Trump back in power, the prime minister would be more likely to conclude he could strike a quick and substantial post-Brexit US-UK trade deal than if Biden emerged as president after the 3 November poll. By contrast, a Biden administration would prioritise rebuilding relations with the EU that have been damaged by Trump.

Whether relying on Trump is realistic, however, is a moot point. As far as I am aware, Congress has to approve any trade agreements signed by the president, and I have no idea whether Trump will have a majority in Congress. If he doesn't, then any ambitions Johnson might have could founder on the anvil of partisan politics.

But the bigger threat to Johnson's ambitions, according to Rogers and other former UK diplomats, is a Democratic administration under Biden. It would prove hugely problematic for Johnson and the UK government, threatening the so-called special relationship.

"I don't think either Biden or his core team are anti-British, but I think they are unimpressed by both Johnson and his top team", Rogers says – which might suggest that there is hope for us yet in American politics.

Of Johnson, "they believe him to have been an early and vigorous supporter of Trump, and that Brexiteer thinking – which they think has damaged the unity of the west – has many parallels with Trumpism". Thus, Rogers doubts there will be much warmth in the personal relationship. And Biden's would simply not be an administration which viewed European integration as a negative.

Piling on the agony, Rogers believes that the UK’s absence from the EU will make it less influential in Biden's administration because it can no longer lead European thinking on the geo-strategic issues – something rated as hugely important to Biden.

Thus, we are told, Biden will put Berlin and Paris – and indeed Brussels – back at the heart of US thinking, although not uncritically, because the US will still have serious issues with EU approaches on economic and security issues.

As well as Rogers, we also have input from Kim Darroch, a former UK ambassador in Washington, who quit the post in 2019 after the leaking of diplomatic cables in which he criticised the Trump administration as "inept".

He shares the view that Biden might even favour a US-EU trade deal over one with the UK. "Whoever wins in November the bedrock of the relationship – defence, security and intelligence collaboration – will remain as strong as ever", he says.

But if it's Biden, there are likely to be some issues. The Democrats don’t like or support Brexit. They may prioritise trade deals with the Pacific region or the EU over a UK/US deal. They will block a trade deal with us if they think we are putting the Good Friday agreement at risk.

Furthermore, the Democrats remember and resent Johnson's comments in 2016 about "the part-Kenyan president" having "an ancestral dislike of the British empire". And then there was Johnson telling US diplomats that Trump was "making America great again".

Another voice is Jonathan Powell, who served as a diplomat in Washington in the 1990s before becoming Tony Blair's chief of staff and taking control of negotiations that led to the Good Friday agreement.

He says Biden believes Johnson has imperilled the Irish peace process. "Biden is very proud of his Irish antecedents", he says. "He has always been active on Northern Ireland since before I was in Washington".

Biden apparently takes a close interest in the Northern Irish peace process and sees it as an outrage that Johnson has in his "cavalier manner" threatened peace in Northern Ireland for so little reason. So that is going to be chalked up against him.

And, it seems, there are long memories in Washington - plenty of foreign policy advisers around Biden who worked in the Obama administration and have not forgiven Johnson for his "part-Kenyan" comments.

This camp sees Johnson as part of the same populist phenomenon that brought Trump to power. And from the Democrats' point of view, the UK outside the EU will make it less important as a partner on the world stage.

Here, the Observer cites Ben Rhodes, Obama's foreign policy adviser. "In all these giant issues – tech and disinformation and China, and trade, the position of the EU on those issues is just a lot more important than the position of the UK", he says, "For these big ticket items I think that Brussels, Berlin and Paris are just much more in the middle of it all, than London will be".

As one might imagine, Foreign Office and Downing Street officials downplay the prospect of difficulties if Biden wins. They rely on their own mantra, that the UK will have opportunities to take the lead on the world stage and build relations with a new US administration.

They also cite the fact that the UK will chair the UN Security Council from February, and the rotating presidency of the G7 from the US, as well as hosting the 26th Conference of Parties (COP 26) on climate change in Glasgow in November 2021.

A British official believes that the climate issue is "really going to help because you've seen lots of comments from Biden about how important that is to him, and since we are leading on COP, it will be something where they will instantly recognise our value and our importance".

That, of course, tells its own story, as I recall an Open Europe study suggesting that one of the major areas of saving, once we leave the EU, would be in cutting back on climate change measures. Now we see, potentially, Johnson exploiting climate change to curry favour with Biden.

But, if climate change is front and centre for Johnson, one wonders how that will work out with Trump, who is not exactly a born-again Green. Will we see Johnson running with the hare and the hounds?

That said, the sooner this election is over the better. I very much take Pete's view that the candidates should be locked in a room for the duration and not let out until the votes are cast. Our own elections are bad enough without having to suffer the US contest by proxy.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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